A Firearm on Every Hip

By Michael Z. Jody
Steve Israel Katrina Hajagos

“Big Guns”
Steve Israel
Simon & Schuster, $26

Want a shrewd, knowledgeable, insider satire about Washington, D.C., and American politics? Who better to write it than a smart, funny, Washington insider? And who could be more of an authentic insider than the former congressman (Democrat, Third District on the North Shore of Long Island) turned novelist Steve Israel?

“They planned the legislative calendar, a complex minute-by-minute schedule of looking busy while accomplishing nothing and preassigning blame. It was alternate side of the street blame. Some days the House blamed the Senate. Other days the Senate blamed the House. Every day both blamed the president who blamed both in return. The bald eagle was being replaced by a scapegoat. Of course, all that finger-pointing required the appearance of discord between Speaker Piermont and Leader Binslap. So they dramatically played the part of congressional combatants defending their respective chambers. But this was Washington. In the city of mirrors, objects were closer than they appeared.”

“Big Guns,” Mr. Israel’s second novel, is set in D.C. and in the little village of Asabogue, which is suspiciously similar to Sagaponack in that it lies “hidden between the jewels of Southampton and East Hampton.” The novel concerns itself with America’s seemingly incurable and unending hostilities between the left and the right, particularly when it comes to guns and gun ownership. 

On Billionaires Bluff in Asabogue, Otis Cogsworth, the C.E.O. of Cogsworth International Arms, is watching a TV press conference in which the mayor of Chicago wants to ban handguns: “My city has banned this weapon [a semiautomatic pistol manufactured by Cogsworth’s company]. But it came from another city that doesn’t give a fu — a damn. Enough! I’ve had it with the gun lobby. I’ve had it with death merchants like Cogsworth. . . . I’ve had it with fuh — freaking guns! It’s time to ban them! Ban them all!”

Cogsworth is understandably anxious that such anti-gun movements seem to be gaining national traction. And he suspects that Cogsworth International is going to take a huge stock hit, since it is one of its guns the Chicago mayor is singling out, holding it like a venomous snake. And the gun was found in a playground! 

As it happens, that evening Otis Cogsworth is to attend a charity fund-raiser for the East End Animal Alliance at the home (10 seconds away down Billionaires Bluff) of Jack Steele, B-list actor and mega-star of such films as “Hard Steel,” “Sharp Steel,” and “Steel Metal.” The catchphrase line that signals the end of every Jack Steele film is “Carpe diem!” — usually punctuated by his trademark sneer and “some final blow to the film’s villain: a cold-blooded push out of an airplane door or a heartless hurling over a canyon’s edge.”

“Steele had become the iconic celebrity spokesman for a number of high-profile conservative crusades: taxes and spending, abortion and regulation, drilling here and­ bombing there. His proudest title was the National Chairman of the American Gun Owners Defense, or AGOD, the chief spokesman for the God-given right to bear arms without pesky background checks.” 

Cogsworth enthusiastically shares Steele’s politics, he just thinks there are “better, more productive ways to express these opinions than sounding like the keynote speaker at the reunion breakfast of the John Birch Society.” 

Otis and Jack get into a private tête-à-tête at the party. “Know what I’d do if I ran this country?” Jack asks. “I’d give ’em all guns! . . . Your problem is you spend too much time on defense, Otis. Start fighting back. Before it’s too late. Carpe diem!”

Cogsworth takes Steele’s words to heart. He decides that to counteract the anti-gun movement the Chicago mayor is inspiring, he wants a bill introduced in Congress that would require every American to own a gun. “Obamacare!” Otis shouts. “That abomination said every American had to purchase health insurance! Why can’t we require that every American purchase life insurance? A gun!”

Sunny McCarthy — blond, whip smart, and very attractive — works as a high-powered lobbyist for Cogsworth, and to Sunny falls the task of getting a bill to make ownership of a handgun legally mandatory. Yes, you read that right: “Mandatory gun possession. With fines if you’re caught without one.” Mandatory! 

Sunny determines that the ideal person to push this bill forward is a young, ambitious, right-wing freshman congressman from Arkansas named Roy Dirkey. Dirkey had run on the “Dirkey American Dream Twelve-Point Plan, the twelve points of which were the dozen federal departments he proposed to abolish.” He is the one who proposes a bill to make it mandatory for every single American adult to own a gun. There is a very funny scene in which several politicians are haggling over the age at which gun purchases should become mandatory. 

    “Are we really going to hand out Colts and crayons in kindergarten?” . . .
    “We could give you an amendment on the floor to exclude children under thirteen.”
    Someone said, “Make it nine and you got a deal.”
    They clapped. 

No one really expects that the bill is going to pass, but it will be a powerful counterpunch to the rising tide of anti-gun sentiment sweeping the nation.

“Sunny knew that Otis’s strategy had a dangerously high risk and a distinctly low probability of success. It would anger a president who didn’t exactly like having his squishy spine being forced against a wall. It would ignite a clash of special interests and require tens of millions in paid media. It would enjoin powerful Members of Congress, inflame the liberal editorial boards, empower the gun lobby and its millions of supporters. It would force gun control proponents back on their heels. It would be the gun control battle to end all gun control battles.”

Sunny promises the young congressman Dirkey that all their allies will climb aboard. “Everyone from the NRA to the Annie Oakleys.” Annie Oakleys, it turns out, are pro-gun Girl Scout troops. Mr. Israel loves to invent (at least I hope they are invented, these days I am a bit afraid to find out) pro-gun groups with delightful names or acronyms: Priests Who Pack, Armed Soccer Moms of America, ZAG (Zionist Americans for Guns), Grannies Against Gun Control, GUN (Guns Uniting the Nation), and NWG (Nuns With Guns). After a little political wrangling, Dirkey agrees to sponsor the American Freedom From Fear Act (AFFFA). 

The mayor of Asabogue is 74-year-old Lois Liebowitz. She is the very essence of a crunchy-granola liberal in all the ways the right-wing conservatives hate: a progressive, recycling, animal rights supporting, left-leaning Jewish woman. She carries an A.C.L.U. bag and bikes to work. She also turns out to be (this is not much of a spoiler) Sunny’s somewhat estranged mother. 

It happens that Mayor Lois decides that Asabogue should join the Chicago Compact banning guns. Because Asa­bogue is the heart of Cogsworth and Steele country, it becomes the focal point for the entire nation. 

“That woman!” Jack Steele says to Otis. “She just dropped a bomb right down our stovepipe! . . . Banning your guns! Going after your stocks. Right in your hometown!”

Steele decides that he is going to run against Lois for mayor and gets enough signatures to force a recall election. This now becomes national news, and Cogsworth International wades in heavily, both financially and by putting boots on the ground to knock door to door. Of course Cogsworth needs the assistance of their top lobbyist, Sunny, daughter of “that annoying little Jewish woman,” Mayor Lois. This obviously puts Sunny into a bit of a tricky situation, but she agrees to return to Asabogue to run Steele’s campaign. 

In addition to truly fathoming how our government currently functions (or doesn’t function), as perhaps only an ex-congressman might, Mr. Israel really, really grasps the nuttiness of the current crop of right-wing extremists. “Big Guns” features nut-job characters (too numerous to mention, both in government and out) who are terrified that Mayor Lois’s real plot is “to take away our guns and leave us defenseless against the Islamex invasion!” 

Ralph Kellogg, town councilman, thinks: “When the Muslims cross the Mexican border and take over the country, and USA stands for United States of Allah, and the Constitution is replaced with Sharia law — then they’ll know! How the whole thing was planned. An inside job. How the government took our guns away so we couldn’t defend ourselves from the invasion.” 

All of this would, of course, be much funnier were it not cutting quite so close to today’s political reality. A few years ago, this novel would have seemed completely zany and crazy. In the current political climate, much of it is sadly true to what we see and hear every day in the news. 

Nevertheless, “Big Guns” is a very funny novel, full of wonderful and captivating historical tidbits, some clearly true and some made up(?). “The Nixon administration had a full-time staffer whose job it was to find the most remote venues for Agnew’s speeches. It was unofficially called ‘Project Tree Falls in the Forest.’ ” 

Mr. Israel is a terrific writer, with deftly turned sentences and wise political sentiments. “Sunny noticed that the lobbyist from the Association of Big Banks was there, plus the Association of Bigger Banks, and the Association of Banks Too Big to Fail. They all sought the senator’s relief from un-American regulations that stifled their ability to create thousands of new jobs planting FORECLOSED signs on America’s front yards.”

At one point in the novel, Jack Steele says, “You know the joke: politics is show business for ugly people.” I would add that these days politics might be more of an ugly business for business people. “Big Guns” is not going to solve our nation’s rift concerning guns and the Second Amendment, but it sure is a good read.

Michael Z. Jody, a regular book reviewer for The Star, is a psychoanalyst and couples counselor with offices in Amagansett and Manhattan. 

Steve Israel is a writer in residence at Long Island University. He’ll be at the East Hampton Library’s Authors Night on Aug. 11.